For a short period, I had decided to withdraw from massive crossovers both from Marvel and DC. Part of it was, admittedly, financial, but most of it was getting burned out from the constant barrage of "must-read" miniseries that threatened to change the status quo. However, bolstered by the presence of The Road to Civil War and Marvel's Civil War trades at the local branch of my public library, I decided to check them out. The worst thing that would happen is that I would find it an average read.
The good news is that, even after all the hype, there are some good ideas in this crossover. The bad news is that they occur in a sloppily written, almost incomprehensible mini-series. So much that I am grateful to have adopted Greg's principle of "don't spend money on books just because they're there".
It all begins in the Aftermath of the Kree-Skrull War, as leaders from the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Atlantis, Wakanda, and the Inhumans, (as well as Dr. Strange) meet at the behest of Iron Man. There, he outlines a grand strategy in the wake of the conflict: a collective pooling of super-heroic resources to stop such incursions in the future. Unfortunately, although two of the leaders tell Iron Man to reconsider (and walk away), the rest decide to form a "shadow alliance" or Illuminati, to monitor and make decisions "in the common good." (Or, what they determine to be "the common good.") The Road to Civil War does a slightly poor job in set-up after the Illuminati tale - a cool story about Dr. Doom's quest for Thor's Hammer (a clever idea), followed by Tony Stark recruiting Peter Parker to "insure" that Stark's plan comes to fruition. (There's even a clever layering of information about past crossovers, insuring that the conspiratorial vibe helps reinforce the "need" for drastic action)
However, the actual Civil War miniseries is remarkable in one way: its uncanny structural resemblance to DC's Kingdom Come.
Now, I am not accusing Mark Millar of plagiarism - which, I learned in high school, is an academic crime. The theme of "the nature of heroism" and "how to make better good guys" isn't exactly new to comics. However, both series eerily share story beats - the amateurish mess-up that costs lives; the conflict between government & super heroes; two formerly friendly colleagues becoming almost bitterly opposed; the semi-divine "wild card" who suddenly emerges; deaths used as motivators towards action; the erection of a special "prison" for those who do not cooperate; and, of course, a lot of punching and fighting.
However, the major difference is that Kingdom Come's plot tends to develop slightly more organically, and does not seem as haphazard. Civil War, on the other hand, is much more by-the-numbers in nature. (I will not buy the argument that the tie-ins are necessary to understanding Civil War - by definition, a mini-series needs to be self-contained and able to stand on its own. That is the difference between DC's 52 and Countdown).
Finally, the most dissatisfying aspect of Civil War is the ending. Kingdom Come ends on a slightly hopeful note - metaphorically, the gods come down from Olympus to work with humanity, rather than serve as its protectors. In Marvel's version, after all of his Machiavellian efforts, Tony Stark realizes his dream: a "super power for the twenty-first century" with a superhero team in every state. Because, to put it sarcastically, the Masters of Evil would threaten Idaho's potato industry, so they need their own super-team. (Just kidding, Idaho).
But more importantly, Civil War is a demonstration of what happens when editors impose changes on characters without considering whether those changes are required - or even inherent in the character. With J. Michael Straczynski publicly expressing his concern over the Spider-Man "One More Day" arc, Joe Quesada should be reading this as a sign that he is taking the wrong approach with Marvel's books. Unfortunately, rather than serve the characters, Marvel is serving the whims of its writers, almost independently of its readership base.
And when that happens, both sides lose.